Drunk Driving

Our Thinking

We see drunk driving as literally a life-and-death policy issue which warrants the strongest possible public policy approaches, consistent and effective prevention and enforcement activity, and significant punishments and sentences for drivers whose BAC levels are found to be above the legal limit.

Research consistently shows that compliance with—and enforcement of—drunk driving laws helps to reduce the number of accidents caused by impaired drivers. A key factor in making such legislation effective is the commitment of governments and communities to public education, compliance, and enforcement.

In addition to education and prevention efforts, certain approaches have demonstrated sufficient levels of success for broad legislative adoption in the United States—namely, Administrative License Revocation, ignition interlock devices, and stiffer penalties for repeat offenders and offenders with higher BAC levels.

It is important to recognize that impaired driving countermeasures are frequently enacted and implemented as piecemeal solutions within an overburdened and underfunded criminal justice system. The result has all too often been that dangerous offenders, often repeat offenders, slip through the system without complying with their sentences.

We believe the solutions to stop drunk driving work best in combination, not in isolation, in order to achieve long term success. If communities, the criminal justice system and legislatures begin to apply a comprehensive approach to this issue, significant advances in the fight against drunk driving will be achieved.

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In all jurisdictions, the establishment of clearly defined legal BAC levels of at least .08 g/dl

Sound scientific research shows that .08 g/dl is the level at which virtually every driver is impaired – affecting all of the critical driving skills including braking, steering, judgment, and response time.

The establishment of zero-tolerance BAC limits for drivers who are below the legal drinking age
DUI Courts with an approach that combines conviction with court-ordered treatment, frequent alcohol testing, and close community supervision

This cooperative approach involves all criminal justice stakeholders (prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, probation officers, law enforcement) and is designed to protect public safety by addressing the root causes of hardcore drunk driving.

As part of a comprehensive solution to eliminate drunk driving, we, in conjunction with the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (FAAR), support the mandatory and effective use of ignition interlocks for all convicted DWI offenders.

Effective use of IIDs requires proper assessment and treatment, supervision, and verification of installation for all offenders ordered to install the device.

Evidence shows interlocks are highly effective in preventing alcohol-impaired driving for both hardcore offenders and first-time offenders while they are installed. We believe actions must be taken to improve ignition interlock installation rates and to expand treatment opportunities. Research shows this is particularly important for hardcore drunk drivers who are resistant to changing their behavior.

It is essential that an effective screening for alcohol, drugs, and mental health issues be conducted with DUI offenders in tandem with an interlock sanction to identify offenders who are likely to recidivate and are in need of treatment. Research shows that repeat DWI offenders often suffer from multiple disorders. In one study, in addition to a lifetime alcohol disorder, 41% of the participants had a drug-related disorder and 44% had a major mental health disorder that was not alcohol or drug-related (Shaffer et al., 2007). Without this critical step, long-term behavior change for these offenders and long-term reduction in drunk driving death and injury are unlikely.

For third-time offenders found guilty of driving while intoxicated, a mandatory felony trial—and felony sentencing if the offender is found guilty

In addition, for repeat offenders, we support court-ordered treatment for alcohol abuse (not as a substitute for penalties, but in addition to other sanctions).

The implementation of Administrative License Revocation (immediate revocation of a driver’s license upon arrest for drunk driving) in all jurisdictions.
  • We endorse ALR as a swift and highly effective means of getting drunk drivers off the roads.
Consistent enforcement of BAC limits
  • We encourage the use of a range of measures, including BAC testing in hospital emergency rooms following accidents in which alcohol may be involved.
  • We also support robust police training with regard to BAC enforcement, and the reallocation of adequate resources to effectively enforce BAC legislation.
  • We support the introduction of BAC limits of at least .08mg/dL where no limits exist.
Improved judicial training

Impaired-driving offenses involve a distinct set of concerns with regard to law enforcement procedures, BAC levels, the details of BAC testing, etc. Officers of local courts should be provided with training which addresses these details.

Realistic alternatives to driving home

We encourage and support the establishment and promotion of designated drivers and alternative options for getting home safely.

Increased promotion of public education about BAC limits and the dangers of drunk driving
  • We encourage a coordination of initiatives to promote education about legal BAC limits through the engagement of a broad range of partners, including government authorities, police, the hospitality industry, advocacy groups, industry groups, community groups, and schools.
  • Such initiatives should address what certain BAC levels mean for individuals in terms of the number of drinks consumed, the dangers of drunk driving, and the consequences and penalties for drivers whose BAC levels exceed legal limits.
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  • 1. Robertson, R.D. and Simpson, H.M. July 2003. DWI System Improvements for Dealing with Hardcord Drinking Drivers: Monitoring. Ottawa, Ontario: Traffic Injury Research Foundation
  • According to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, road traffic crashes are one of the main causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide; moreover, alcohol-impaired driving is one of the world’s leading causes of road traffic casualties.

    From a policy perspective, issues related to drunk driving tend to focus on disparities amongst legal BAC limits, inconsistent or ineffective enforcement of limits, drivers’ awareness and understanding of their level of intoxication when they make the decision to drive after drinking, and the relationship of BAC limits to harmful behaviors associated with alcohol abuse—chief among them, drunk driving and its consequences.


    It is well-documented that alcohol’s effects on the central nervous system impact behavioral and cognitive capabilities.1, 2 The impairments exhibited by drivers who are intoxicated include slowed reflexes, blurred vision, impaired reasoning, and poor judgment of distance, speed, and possible hazards. The reaction time of a drunk driver, compared to a sober driver, can be reduced by up to 30 percent.3

    A driver’s risk of being involved in a fatal traffic accident increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Traffic accident statistics show a clearly escalating level of risk as BAC levels increase.4 Sound scientific research consistently shows that .08 g/dl is the level at which virtually every driver is impaired – affecting all of the critical driving skills including braking, steering, judgment, and response time.


    In the United States, alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities account for 29 percent of all traffic fatalities. Although alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities declined during the two decades spanning from 1986 to 2006 in the U.S., on average, someone is killed in an alcohol-impaired traffic accident approximately every 50 minutes. In 2015, 10,265 people died in alcohol-impaired traffic crashes in the United States.5



    Deaths in crashes involving drunk drivers increased 3.2 percent in 2015. According to NHTSA, the majority of those crashes involved drivers with blood alcohol concentration of .15 or higher – nearly double the legal limit. Americans have driven more during this period, yet the fatality rate per vehicle mile traveled (VMT) has declined steadily. While the losses remain too high, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in the U.S. have declined 51% from 1982 to 2015.

    In the European Union (EU), in 2011 an estimated 25 percent of the more than 30,000 fatalities on the road were alcohol-related.7 Although car crash fatalities linked to alcohol dropped in some countries between 1997 and 2005 (e.g., the Czech Republic, Belgium, and Germany), drunk driving-related deaths in countries such as Great Britain, Hungary, Finland, and Spain rose between one and three percent during the same time frame.8


    All but seven percent of the world’s nations have maximum permissible BAC levels in place, with maximum legal BAC levels ranging from .00 g/dl to .08 g/dl.

    According to a WHO survey published in 2011, of 133 countries:

    • 39 percent of countries set the legal BAC limits between at .05 percent;
    • 34 percent of countries set the legal BAC limits at .08 percent; and
    • 10 percent of countries have adopted zero tolerance policies, where no measurable BAC is permitted.9

    Countries also vary in terms of the penalties they impose for violations of legal BAC limits, and the extent to which such limits are communicated and enforced. In addition, some countries impose lower legal BAC limits for younger or less experienced drivers.

    This is in part in response to research which shows that for younger and less experienced drivers, smaller increases in BAC levels can raise the risk of tragic consequences such as fatal traffic accidents (more so than for older, more experienced drivers). In some countries (e.g., Australia, Croatia, Puerto Rico, Spain, and the United States), lower BAC levels are set for younger or novice drivers.10

    More stringent BAC limits are also set by some jurisdictions for people who operate commercial vehicles, airline pilots, captains of ships, and people who drive vehicles such as taxis, trucks, and buses. In addition, in some countries, BAC limits extend beyond drivers of automobiles to operators of various types of other vehicles, including personal aircraft, snowmobiles, and even bicycles.12

    In the United States, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation establishing that a driver with a BAC of .08 g/dl is considered legally intoxicated. In addition, 48 states and the District of Columbia have laws and penalties target at those who drive with elevated or “high” BAC levels, generally .15 g/dl or higher.13



    *BAC for professional drivers and drivers under 24 years of age is .00 mg/dL

    **BAC for bus and truck drivers is .02 mg/dL

    ***BAC for professional drivers is .02 mg/dL

    See: http://www.icap.org/PolicyIssues/DrinkingandDriingv/.


    There is a body of research which identifies repeat drunk driving offenders and “hardcore” drunk drivers as a large and disproportionate source of highway crashes. Drivers with very high BAC levels (at or above .15 g/dl) have a very high risk of dying in a crash or getting severely injured.xiii

    As defined by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (Responsibility.org) and the National Hardcore Drunk Driver project in the United States as well as other organizations and government entities, a hardcore drunk driver is someone who (1) drives with a BAC level of .15 g/dl or above and/or (2) drives repeatedly while intoxicated (e.g., as demonstrated by having more than one arrest for doing so)14.

    “Buzzed” Driving

    Drivers who are at or just above the legal BAC limit present a distinct concern because these individuals may mistakenly perceive that they are not impaired or do not appear to be overtly intoxicated.

    Current advocacy campaigns such as the Ad Council’s “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” initiative address this issue and aim to increase public education about the dangers of driving when in a so-called “buzzed” state.15

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  • Governments and communities have adopted various types of measures in an attempt to reduce the incidence of alcohol-impaired traffic accidents, and to prevent those who are intoxicated from driving in the first place. Although some of the leading examples are from the U.S., these newer approaches with promising results can be customized and adapted for jurisdictions around the world.


    In addition to penalties which involve the revocation of driving privileges following a conviction for driving while intoxicated, Administrative License Revocation (ALR) involves the immediate revocation of a driver’s license when he or she is arrested for driving while intoxicated. Typically, this type of license suspension is implemented if (1) the driver refuses a BAC breath test but the law enforcement officer on hand deems there is cause for arrest based on impairment; or (2) if a breath test is administered and reflects a BAC level above the legal limit. Advocates of ALR promote the practice as a swift and effective response which helps to keep the roads safe for other drivers. Currently in the U.S., 42 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing for ALR.1


    Ignition Interlock devices—BAC breath testing devices linked to a vehicle’s ignition system—require that a driver take a breath test before being allowed to start the vehicle’s engine. The vehicle will not start unless the driver’s BAC is below a pre-set level, and the interlock system tracks each attempt to start the vehicle. In addition, interlock devices can be calibrated for “rolling re-tests” which require a driver to provide breath tests at regular intervals—thus preventing drivers from circumventing the device by asking a sober friend to start the car, drinking while driving, leaving the car idling while going into a bar to drink, etc.2

    According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, all fifty states have some sort of ignition interlock law. Fourteen states—Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, and Washington—have mandatory ignition interlock provisions for all offenses. Illinois and Colorado’s laws are not mandatory for a first conviction, but there are strong incentives to install an interlock device on the first conviction. 3


    In addition to ignition interlocks, other advanced sensor technologies for alcohol detection are under development. Reasons cited for the research has stemmed from some concerns about the limitations of ignition interlock devices currently on the market. Interlocks target convicted offenders with any measurable amount of blood alcohol. They also require frequent re-tests by drivers that would be too intrusive for widespread use by the general public.

    The Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are engaged in a cooperate research agreement. The DADDS program, or Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, aims to research, develop and demonstrate non-invasive in-vehicle alcohol detection technologies that can measure a driver’s BAC.4


    Research also shows that individuals may not always have sound awareness of their individual level of impairment—and hence may mistakenly believe they are not intoxicated when in fact they have a BAC level above the legal limit. Recent advocacy campaigns addressing this phenomenon include the Ad Council’s “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” initiative in the U.S., developed to promote public education about the dangers of driving after drinking when in a so-called “buzzed” state—versus being overtly drunk.5 In addition to the “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” campaign, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration runs awareness campaigns such as “Friends Don’t Leg Friends Drive Drunk” and enforcement campaigns such as “Drive Sober or Get Pulleed Over” and “Over the Limit. Under Arrest.”

    Similarly, some community and college initiatives have used breathalyzers as an educational tool, helping individuals understand the difference between how intoxicated they may feel and their actual BAC levels.6 In addition, law enforcement and others use eye goggles designed to simulate impairment at various BAC levels.  Other examples of such targeted initiatives include FAAR’s B4UDrink program and an interactive tool—B4UDrink.Mobi—which individuals can use to better understand the effect their alcohol consumption will have on their BAC level by entering key factors such as their gender, weight, the number and type of drinks they intend to consume, etc.

    In Australia, the DrinkMeter program offers an easy-to-use, online interactive tool that allows individuals to learn about BAC levels during a simulated drinking exercise, thus better understanding how their BAC levels and risk levels increase as they drink.7 In addition, the 100% Cool program in Portugal, the Arrive Alive! Program in South Africa, and the Euro Bob campaigns in Europe have been developed to support public education about the dangers of drunk driving, and to encourage the use of designated drivers.8


    Consistent and visible enforcement has been shown to be a powerful deterrent to impaired driving. Enforcement methods which have proven effective include breath testing (random or where impairment of a driver is suspected), sobriety checkpoints, police patrols, and officer training.9 However, 30 percent of countries do not use random breath tests to enforce BAC limits. Of the 141 countries reporting on random breath testing of drivers, 71 did some type of testing, 24 did random breath testing only at roadside checkpoints, and 16 used special mobile units.10

    Punishment for convicted drunk drivers also varies a great deal from country to country, and in some jurisdictions, is linked to the extent to which an offender’s BAC level exceeds the legal limit. Generally speaking, the consequences for exceeding legally imposed BAC limits range from mandatory educational programs and monetary fines to more severe measures such as automatic license suspension and prison sentences.11


    DUI Courts (sometimes called DWI Courts) deal with hardcore drunk driving offenders by providing long-term accountability and rehabilitation in addition to conviction. The DUI Court model was first implemented on a trial basis in the U.S. in the 1990s, and is designed to protect public safety by addressing the root causes of repeat DUI offenders/hardcore drunk drivers. This entails a cooperative approach involving all criminal justice stakeholders (prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, probation officers, law enforcement). In addition to being convicted, offenders typically enter into court-ordered treatment, undergo frequent alcohol testing, and are under close community supervision. Recent research demonstrating the effectiveness of this approach includes results from a Georgia program funded by NHTSA and the DOJ which cut recidivism 38 to 65 percent, compared to other programs in the state.12


    Research suggests that factors such as increased public education about BAC limits and the dangers of driving while impaired can play a key role in enhancing the effectiveness of legislation which targets drunk driving.13Levels of public awareness about legal BAC limits tend to vary greatly, and public education campaigns to promote and enhance understanding of BAC limits have demonstrated positive results—whether implemented through governments, local communities, advocacy groups, and/or the beverage alcohol industry.14


    As described by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Designated Driver programs, combined with visible law enforcement, are “a key component of community-based comprehensive impaired-driving prevention efforts.” Designated Driver programs typically promote the concept of designating a sober driver, but there are also variations on this concept such as “Safe Ride” programs which offer alternative methods of transportation for people who have been drinking and don’t want to risk the negative consequences of drunk driving.15

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